Friday, January 30, 2009

China to Obama: “Nice T-Bill Auction Ya Got There…Hate to See Anything Happen to It”

The Chinese government fired a shot across the bow of the Obama administration this week, with pointed statements by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and a coordinated backgrounder in the Wall Street Journal.

Without directly naming the United States, Wen accused you-know-who of fouling its own economic nest, endangering the world financial system, and negatively impacting China’s economy.

That’s at cross purposes with the meme the United States is struggling to get out. But Premier Wen’s message has immediate, real-world and potentially near-term consequences that the United States can’t afford to ignore.

Politics, ideology, and human nature being what they are, there is an ongoing effort to minimize U.S. culpability for the dent in China’s pocketbook, and even blame the current economic crisis on systemic abuse by the Chinese, and not a systemic failure of the free market system.

As University of Wisconsin economist Menzie Chinn noted on the blog Econbrowser, outgoing Fed Chairman Bernanke’s swan song, the last Economic Report to the President, blamed our epic economic bellyflop on the (in economic circles) notorious “savings glut” in China, the oil producing states, and other emerging countries.

The shorthand version of the “savings glut” brief is that China and other countries rolled up huge surpluses and threw them into the Western economy. This tsunami of money pushed down the cost of debt even for risky investments and sparked an orgy of injudicious lending that is now experiencing its tragic denouement.

In China’s case, as opposed to Saudi Arabia’s, the accumulation of savings is regarded as somewhat less than virtuous, coming as it did from the immense forex reserves the PRC accumulated by a) undervaluing its currency to achieve large trade surpluses and b) closing off its domestic capital markets to foreigners and buying the resultant forex surplus from its citizens to put in the People’s Bank of China vault instead of letting it roam the world freely and efficiently through the mediating genius of the world’s investment banks.

However, as Dr. Chinn points out, all these surplus savings could be sucked into the vortex of the U.S. debt tornado because the U.S. government was asleep at the regulatory switch when it came to managing the risks inherent in an environment of converging interest rates for all kinds of risk.

I would also add that, in China’s case, purchases of U.S. mortgage-backed debt were miniscule. The risk averse PRC shunned subprime investments; furthermore it struggled to find significant private sector blue-chip harbors for its US$ stash despite the heroic efforts of America’s investment banks (remember CNOOC’s abortive attempt to buy Unocal?).

Instead, the PBOC dumped its foreign exchange holdings largely into U.S. Treasury bonds, courtesy of the Bush administration’s willingness to cut taxes and run rather sizable deficits covered by issuing government debt—debt that was not purchased by American savers, who instead had become borrowers courtesy of a global debt binge and real estate bubble.

In the World Economic Summit at Davos this week, Premier Wen made these points as he implicitly scolded the U.S. for driving the world economy off a cliff:

Mr Wen made scathing comments about the "inappropriate macroeconomic policies" of some unnamed countries and the "unsustainable model of development characterised by prolonged low savings and high consumption".

He attacked financial institutions' "blind pursuit of profit" and their "lack of self-discipline".

Undoubtedly, the China-screwed-us explanation will provide aid and comfort for Republican and free-market hardheads looking for a comforting explanation/excuse for the crisis. But the Chinese aren’t going to buy it, I don’t think many economists will be comfortable accepting it as the full explanation of our woes, and the American public will probably find the Lolcats version of the theory—“Chineez made me spend there munee…Waaah!”—somewhat bewildering.

Behind Wen’s remarks was a more direct sense of anger and betrayal involving the potential loss of billions of dollars of Chinese assets in American institutions—and feelings of suspicion shading on paranoia that should be of concern to President Obama’s foreign policy and economic teams.

Economist—and China forex reserve guru—Brad Setser posted concerning a detailed backgrounder by the Wall Street Journal coinciding with Wen’s remarks at Davos.

To me, at least, the report was clearly prepared with the full assistance of a pissed-off Chinese government, and provides a behind-the-scenes account of Beijing’s exciting trip through the Wall Street meatgrinder, courtesy of Henry Paulson and the Bush administration.

The article describes in detail China’s efforts to diversify its portolio into “safe-as-houses” American instruments beyond Treasuries in recent years, including about $400 billion in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac paper and multi-billion dollar strategic investments in some big, blue chip money market funds by China’s sovereign wealth fund, the China Investment Corporation or CIC.

The article amply describes the Chinese sense of frustration when many of these investments went south, adding the detail that China’s withdrawal from the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac auctions in the fall of 2008 was most likely a factor in forcing the U.S. government to step in to prop up these two institutions—something the Obama administration is no doubt chewing over.

I think Mr. Setser is off the mark when he takes the Chinese to task for unreasonable command economy expectations for the risk inherent in any free market economy asset, and for selfishly pulling out of the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac market and not lending their Treasuries to other (foreign) banks to serve as security for further lending:

China’s leaders believed that China’s investments in the US financial sector would be protected, perhaps because that is how things are done in China. They weren’t. At least not consistently.

Fair enough. China owns the Treasuries after all, and has no obligation to lend them out. But, well, its actions in both the Treasury and Agency markets weren’t exactly stabilizing.

What Mr. Setser and the WSJ miss, perhaps, is the Chinese framing of their expectation in making these investments—that they were encouraged by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, the fattest of Wall Street fat cats—and were not merely parking their excess dollars in some convenient slush fund. They wish to send the message they were making a strategic investment as a sovereign nation, consciously conforming to U.S. government policy, sluicing cash where President Bush, Secretary Paulson, and their Wall Street buddies wanted it, buying a let-up in China-bashing from a grateful Bush administration, and getting some of that risk insurance that the Republicans extend as a matter of course to their well-heeled buddies.

Therefore, I believe, China is making the case that it is entitled to some special consideration (for itself and its investments) now that things have gone pretty bad.

Instead, the whole process has turned into a chaotic muddle, with the Chinese angrily waiting their turn with all the other schlubs who got suckered into these collapsing investments.

Furthermore, in the Chinese reaction—encapsulated in an angry report circulated among the Chinese leadership essentially accusing naïve members of China’s financial team of happily and foolishly colluding with Mr. Paulson—I hear echoes of another source of Chinese frustration: pushback against the Bush administration concept of “responsible stakeholder” which was invented by Robert Zoellick at the State Department and invoked incessantly in an effort to get the Chinese government to subordinate its narrow national interests to the greater good, at least as it was defined by the West.

Well, now the Chinese are no doubt telling themselves that “responsible stakeholder” was the height of American hypocrisy, and a dangerous snare and delusion for China—something else the Obama administration had better note.

Mr. Setser professes himself bewildered by the statement,

One passage charged that Mr. Zhou "colluded with Henry Paulson to buy U.S. bonds, forced [Chinese yuan] appreciation, attached China's economy to the U.S. and broke China's economic independence."

presumably, because it conflates two mutually exclusive economic priorities: dumping dollars and putting pressure on the yuan to appreciate.

Politically, on the other hand the charge makes perfect sense: that people inside the Chinese economic technocracy injudiciously went along with Paulson’s policy prescriptions for smooth U.S.-China relations--allowing the yuan to appreciate and buying U.S. securities to prop up Wall Street--and the Chinese government got shafted as a result.

It’s a clear indication that the honeymoon is over for the wizards of Wall Street and their wannabe counterparts in China’s financial institutions, as far as the Chinese leadership is concerned.

A final warning for the Obama administration can be gleaned from these concluding paragraphs in the Wall Street Journal article:

Then Washington allowed Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. to collapse, further shaking Beijing's faith. One casualty was CIC's nearly $5.4 billion investment in the Reserve Primary Fund, the money-market fund that "broke the buck" in September as a result of the Lehman collapse.

CIC had placed money in the Primary Fund because "money market funds are supposed to be very safe," said a Chinese official in an interview late last year. But on Sept. 16, the Primary Fund's managers announced that they were delaying redemptions.

CIC officials emailed Reserve asking to withdraw all of its money from the fund, and promptly received a reply agreeing to the request, says the Chinese official.

CIC officials believed the agreement meant that CIC had become a creditor to the troubled fund, and therefore was entitled to all of its money.

A Reserve spokeswoman says the company doesn't comment on individual clients.

Later in the day on Sept. 16, Reserve announced that the Primary Fund's net asset value had fallen to 97 cents a share, below the standard $1.00 level.

Reserve initially said redemption requests received before 3 p.m. that day would be honored in full, but has since said that the net asset value already was down to 99 cents a share by 11 a.m.

As Reserve further delayed payments, CIC began to fear that it might not get all of its money.

The Reserve issue "is causing a lot of concern with a lot of financial institutions in China," said the Chinese official.

Some officials expected that the U.S. and its financial institutions would better protect China from loss.

"If the U.S. is treating us this way, eventually that will be enough cause for concern in the stability of the [U.S.] system," the official said.

A CIC spokeswoman declined to comment on the current status of the dispute. [emphasis added]

Translation (to me): China wants the Obama administration to get CIC’s money in the Primary Reserve Fund to be treated as debt, not equity, thereby confirming a special, protected quasi-sovereign character for China’s large strategic investments in the U.S. financial sector.

This might simply be a hail-mary plea from the technocrats at CIC, begging their sympathizers in the U.S. financial system to save their bacon.

At the very least, the existence of this demand shows that the free-market/globalization believers in China are on the defensive.

But it also might be a warning from China’s leaders, not just the embattled bureaucrats of CIC.

If the Obama administration allows financial nature to take its course and lets CIC lose its stake, then, well maybe the Chinese government will have to let nature take its course and take its dollar-investing business elsewhere…for instance, away from the U.S. Treasuries market, let alone any shaky private or quasi-private or half-assed nationalized U.S. financial institution that’s looking for a foreign sugar daddy.

In other words: “Nice T-bill auction ya got there…hate to see anything happen to it…and, by the way—make sure that Primary Reserve Fund thing works out for us, willya?”

Beyond the world of government debt and Wall Street, the Main Street issue of the undervalued-RMB, a perennial of the U.S.-China policy debate, threatens to complicate the high-octane dispute over high finance between Washington and Beijing.

During his confirmation hearing, Treasury Secretary Geithner passed on a message that President Obama believes China was manipulating its currency. Still a step away from a formal finding of intentional manipulation for the purpose of gaining an unfair trade advantage, but at the very least an indication that the Obama team will be pounding the trade issue more than the Bush administration did.

And the Chinese will be pounding right back, painting calls for RMB revaluation as backward-looking protectionism by an Obama administration anxious to placate its union base.

As a matter of personal opinion, I do think that the RMB is undervalued.

I think the Chinese government, as a matter of practicality, has maintained a dollar peg for its currency in order to provide a stable economic environment for its exporters (instead of making them to manage their forex risk through the complicated free-market frou-frou of currency futures markets, derivatives, etc.), and that’s a legitimate national economic goal;

I think the peg was set on the high side, to give Chinese exporters a bit of a leg-up;

I think the Chinese government believes that its forex structure—the dollar peg, enabled by sale of forex to the government bank and severe limits on cross-border flows of capital—has worked pretty well, especially in light of the financial disaster sweeping the open markets of the United States and Europe;

And, given the pain that an RMB revaluation would cause China’s exporters, already battered by the global recession, and the disruption caused by speculative hot money sneaking into China to buy RMB by hook or crook in anticipation of a revaluation, I don’t see the Chinese government heeding international political pressure right now to make more than incremental adjustments to the exchange rate and the overall capital account regime.

Having said that, I think that the Chinese government is desperate to revive the world economy and get its export factories humming again, so it will be prepared to do its bit to help matters along—like pissing away its government reserves buying more U.S. Treasury debt and hope that the Obama administration’s stimulus package jumpstarts the world economy.

And I believe that the Obama administration will decide in the end that Chinese cooperation on the stimulus package will be more important than a political struggle over the exchange rate, especially as the recession causes imports from China to sag.

The question is, will China consider a de facto climbdown on RMB valuation enough? Or will they harp on the losses they suffered in U.S. securities that were implicitly government-backed?

And, will U.S. opinion cut the Obama administration any slack on accommodating China?

Despite the theoretical and practical obstacles, however, there will be continued across the board ideological enthusiasm for continuing to bash China.

Right-wing commentators, it seems, don’t like the Chinese rubbing our noses in our recession because they consider the PRC an imperfect and dishonest exploiter of the magnificent capitalistic system the West has bequeathed to the world.

Left-wing commentators, in my view, consider Chinese macroeconomic activity as an extension of the regime’s immoral policies, as the CCP tramples on the environment, Tibetans and Uighurs, Darfurians, and the world’s working poor with equal gusto in its headlong pursuit of profit.

There is a certain amount of hoping and wishing that the Chinese economy would suffer a spectacular collapse as divine punishment for its government’s malfeasance.

These expectations have been complicated and, perhaps, exacerbated by the fact that it was the advanced free market economy of the West that went into the tank first, and not the inferior Oriental model.

As to whether the inadequacies of Chinese forex regime will lead to the systemic crisis of the Communist regime that many seem to anticipate, there are, as I understand them, two major critiques:

The first is that the forex surplus produced by the undervalued RMB must be purchased by the government and will create inescapable inflationary pressure—or unsupportable levels of debt as the government sells bonds to soak up the extra cash.

As far as I can see, inflation—the ultimate bugbear of China’s Communist rules, much more than an economic downturn—has not been an issue up until now. With the Chinese economy growing at a clip of about 10%, apparently there was enough productivity there to soak up the increase in the money supply.

Of course, growth is slowing to a crawl in China—if not going negative—but the trade surplus will also dwindle. Given the worldwide recession and slump in demand, I think the inflation argument is headed, at least for now, to the dustbin of history.

The second argument is that the undervalued RMB has distorted economic decision-making in China. Money pours into a) export projects for obvious reasons and b) into real estate (and the ancillary steel, cement, and construction and building material industries) and stock market bubbles as asset plays because domestic savers lack other suitable domestic and international destinations for their RMB holdings.

Certainly, sectoral imbalance is a big headache for the Chinese economy, and the government’s command economy response (throttling back on lending and materials to overheated sectors, coupled with state investment in industries and locales of dubious economic viability) isn’t pretty. And, as the economy deflates, foreign investment dries up, real estate values collapse, and major industries confront the specter of overcapacity, it will get pretty ugly.

And it could get very, very ugly if the Chinese government perversely decided to let its weak banking sector rise and (inevitably) fall on its free market merits, at the same time the West is engaged in the wholesale subsidizing and/or nationalizing of its financial sector.

However, the state-run banking system in China has so far shown itself resistant to foreclosure and immune to bankruptcy, despite perhaps a trillion dollars in non-performing loans (NPLs).
And that’s unlikely to change in the current environment.

In an eyebrow-raising development, the Chinese government reported that NPLs had declined from RMB 700 billion in 2007 to RMB 500 billion at the end of 2008, an indication either of miraculous luck in the midst of a multi-year lending binge, statistical legerdemain by the Chinese government meant to befuddle foreign analysts, a bureaucratic fiat to cook the books, a genuine sub rose injection of capital to enable the banks to lend through the recession, or All of the Above.

My bet is that the Chinese banking system, thanks to the recession and government intervention, manages to dodge the well-deserved fiscal bullet again.

I think observers who anticipate that the Chinese Communist party is going to spend itself into oblivion as the Soviet Union did (gorging on the fatal apple of shopping malls instead of armaments) will be disappointed.

Systemic financial failure--hyperinflation or the annihilation of people’s savings through the collapse of China’s state run banking system that terminally discredits the CCP regime and destroys the legitimacy of its rule--doesn’t appear likely.

The recession—and millions of impoverished Chinese returning to their villages from shuttered factories along the coast—will certainly exacerbate the simmering resentment against the Party’s serial corruption, oppression, and arrogant incompetence, especially at the local level.

However, the greatest threat to the Chinese Communist government has never been popular unrest provoked by economic suffering.

It has been the threat of fissures within the ruling elite, of the kind that nearly destroyed the CCP during the Cultural Revolution, is typified by the assisted suicide of the CPSU under Gorbachev, and provoked Deng Xiaoping’s ferocious wrath against Zhao Ziyang during the 1989 democracy movement.

Currently, the CCP ruling cadre in Beijing is riding high, coming off a decade of economic growth with a fair amount of money in the bank, reveling in its Olympic triumph, and enjoying the apparent vindication of its managed, nationalist economic model over the open-market nostrums peddled by the West. The United States, instead of representing a triumphant and destabilizing alternative, is mired in political and economic problems of its own.

If and when popular unrest does occur as a result of the recession, the Party will confront it with an effective combination of ingenuity, unity, and brutality—and the sacrifice of as many flagrantly incompetent and corrupt local officials as it takes--unhindered by the example or effective condemnation of the West.

I expect that, instead of threatening the existence of the CCP, the global financial crisis has enhanced the legitimacy and prolonged the life of the current Chinese Communist regime.

That’s not an endorsement or a value judgment, by the way. It’s just how I see it—and how I think the Obama administration might weigh economics in its China equation.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

New Hope for Pakistan?

And a Dose of Realism for Afghanistan?

Candidate Obama declared his determination to scale up the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, apparently in an effort to demonstrate that, despite his opposition to the Iraq war, he possessed the necessary bombs away! martial ardor to serve as America’s Commander in Chief.

President Obama, in one his first acts upon taking office, explicitly authorized a drone attack that killed 18 in Pakistan’s Waziristan (in contrast to the unacknowledged incursions under the Bush administration), in order to show his determination to pursue the fight into Pakistan despite misgivings in Islamabad.

These actions, combined with the extensive publicity giving to the reassessment of Afghanistan strategy conducted under the aegis of CENTCOM commander and Iraq surge mastermind General David Petraeus, aroused concerns that the Obama administration would pursue a ruinous escalation of the conflict that would do a lot to destabilize Pakistan while doing little to improve the situation in Afghanistan, all to provide political cover against Republican critics.

In a piece I wrote in August of last year, America Drinks the COIN Kool-aid, I pointed out Pakistan’s inability to withstand blowback in its heartland engineered by the Pakistani Taliban in response to attacks in the border regions and warned:

American planners originally hoped that Musharraf’s armies would be the anvil upon which Western forces crushed the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan.

Pakistan is more like a rotten melon that will fly apart under the hammer blows of a U.S. counter-insurgency campaign in west Pakistan.

In a Salon op-ed on January 26, Juan Cole criticized the implications of the drone attack authorized by President Obama for America's Afghanistan policy, warned of the dangers of becoming infatuated with a search for a military solution, and invoked the dreaded “V” (Vietnam) and “Q” (Quagmire) words.

However, based on the statements of Defense Secretary Gates and news coming out of Pakistan, I have hope.

Perhaps not Obama-hope that the magic aura of our president will bring about the yearned for “Grand Bargain”—miraculous progress on Kashmir, the emergence of a forceful and capable civilian Pakistan government from the unlikely chrysalis of the inept and opportunistic Zardari regime, the unprecedented success of a counterinsurgency campaign in the Pashtun areas of eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan after 100 years of futility, climaxed with a convivial dogpile of Afghan, Taliban, Pakistani, and Indian lions and lambs in Kabul…

…but hope that intelligent people will look at a situation intelligently and do something intelligent.

Consider this quote from Secretary Gates in the January 28 New York Times:

“If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who served under Mr. Bush and is staying on under Mr. Obama, told Congress on Tuesday. He said there was not enough “time, patience or money” to pursue overly ambitious goals in Afghanistan, and he called the war there “our greatest military challenge.”

The title of the article is “Aides Say Obama’s Afghan Aims Elevate War”, an unmistakable indication to a cynic like myself that President Obama’s intention is not to elevate the war; just the opposite—he is busy, with the unstinting assistance of the New York Times, trying to lower expectations and downgrade the objectives of the Afghan war while using the rhetoric of a great military effort to obtain political cover.

Meanwhile, the Zardari administration has been lobbying for an end to drone strikes and a fundamental rethink of U.S. policy away from military counterinsurgency toward an accommodation with the Taliban—and a rebalancing of U.S. foreign policy for South Asia that takes Pakistan’s circumstances and priorities into greater account.

Judging from Pakistani media coverage (here, here, and here) of President Zardari’s and Prime Minister Gilani’s remarks in Europe and a publicity given to a negative assessment on the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Pakistan hopes that a split within NATO between the United States and Europe on further commitments to Afghanistan will compel the United States to adopt a more accommodating posture vis a vis the Taliban, allow the Pakistan government to deal with its Pashtun problem in a more relaxed, protracted, and political manner, and, on a more fundamental level, focus Washington’s attention on Pakistan as a key regional partner whose quest for security, political stability and economic growth is a worthy object of sympathy and U.S. aid in its own right, and not simply as a footdragging adjunct to the Afghan adventure and an impediment to Washington’s all-important relationship with India.

For an example of the current framing, Pakistan’s GEO media outlet reported on Prime Minister Gilani’s remarks as follows:

US Afghan policy has been a failure:

PM Updated at: 2103 PST, Wednesday, January 28, 2009
DAVOS: Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani has called upon the world leaders to renew their commitment to introduce equitable global rules and ensure participation of developing countries including Pakistan in economic decision-making.

In his message to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, the prime minister said that the US policy in Afghanistan has failed to achieve its objectives. Gilani said Pakistan has sacrificed more than any other country including NATO in war against terrorism.

The prime minister said that narco-money coming from Afghanistan into Pakistan was destabilizing the county. Gilani said Pakistan wants peace in the region and a stable Afghanistan was in the interest of Pakistan.

I speculate that Pakistan is hoping for a new, post-election realism in the Obama administration that draws on several facts:

1) The Mumbai attacks and Islamabad’s shaky response have put Pakistan-India relations in the deep freeze and demonstrated the inability of the Zardari administration to pursue rapprochement with India over the objections of the army;

2) As the estimable Laura Rozen reported, the Indian government deep-sixed the idea of internationalizing (or at least multi-lateralizing) the Kashmir problem by lobbying the Obama administration to remove the issue (and India itself) from newly minted Afghanistan/Pakistan envoy Richard Holbrooke’s brief;

3) The bloom is, therefore, off the “Grand Bargain” rose;

4) Judging from Secretary Gates’ remarks, I speculate that General Petraeus’ assessment indicates that, absent the “Grand Bargain” miracle, equivocal Pakistan support of counterinsurgency operations in Pashtun areas on both sides of the Durand line means that the Taliban will continue to kick behind in Afghanistan;

5) Given the slim likelihood of a spectacular sea change in Western fortunes in Afghanistan, I am hoping that the Obama administration re-examined its assumptions for the region and decided that the immediate risks of destabilizing Pakistan—a huge (population 170 million, GDP $500 billion) Muslim, nuclear-armed country with a vigorous democratic movement, highly developed economy, a military whose leadership is finally trying to remove itself from domestic politics, and enormous urbanized population sick of extremism and violence—outweighed the pie-in-the sky hope of crushing the Taliban and creating a democratic showcase for 33 million impoverished Afghans (GDP $35 billion) riven by tribal loyalties and at the mercy of a determined and effective insurgency.

America’s stated strategic posture under both Bush and the new Obama administration is, of course, unchanged: turning around Afghanistan, cleaning up the tribal areas of western Pakistan/eastern Afghanistan, and tilting toward India.

And, given the welter of conflicting, inconvenient, and politically explosive interests surrounding any major policy change, the temptation will be great to stay the course with the same murderous muddling that has characterized America’s South Asia policy over the last years.

However, I would say that the most practical objective for Mr. Obama would be to keep the Afghan turd swirling aimlessly in the foreign policy commode for the rest of his administration, but chunk enough troops in there to make sure that, in 2012, the Republicans are not running campaign ads showing triumphant Taliban reoccupying the presidential palace in Kabul on his watch…

…while focusing some of America’s attention and energy on protecting and preserving Pakistan’s democratic government and society.

It will be an interesting test of President Obama’s pragmatism, vision, and ability to innovate to see if he decides to complement a political and security hedge on Afghanistan with an effective and far-sighted rethink of America’s Pakistan policy.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Fear of a Black Sneaker

If America can be understood by observing its sports—and, more importantly, its sports fans—the news does not look all good for Obama’s America.

For the last couple days, the American sporting world has been aboil with l’affaire Chase Budinger.

Chase Budinger is a star basketball player (white) with the Arizona Wildcats. In a game against the University of Houston Cougars on January 24, Budinger drew a charge by UH’s star player (black) Aubrey Coleman.

Budinger was knocked to the floor, slid backwards, and the referee whistled a foul. In the aftermath of the play, Coleman continued forward and his foot came down on the side of Budinger’s neck and jaw.

Budinger jumped up to give Coleman a retaliatory shove.

The referees reviewed the play, apparently determined that Coleman’s action was intentional, and kicked him out of the game. Budinger stated that he thought the step was intentional. So, apparently, did a lot of other people.

To China Matters, the video is inconclusive. It looks to me like Coleman is carelessly trying to step over Budinger (or perhaps not caring enough about not stepping on Budinger); as his foot comes down on Budinger’s jaw Coleman stumbles forward, an indication, perhaps, of a mis-step.

The next day, Coleman issued a contrite-sounding apology for the “accident” (you can see Coleman’s apology—and the video of the original incident—here, on the blog of Houston Chronicle sportswriter Michael Murphy).

One might think that the ambiguity concerning Coleman’s culpability, the apology, and the lack of adverse consequences (Budinger was unhurt except for a raspberry on his shoulder; the fired-up Wildcats erased Houston’s lead and won the game in overtime) might cause this incident to sink into immediate obscurity.

However, sports media is, along with celebrity journalism, a subset of mainstream American journalism that proudly clings to its tabloid roots. Sport is one of the few things Americans care about passionately, and it is easy and profitable for sports media outlets to arouse these emotions in order to generate controversy, debate, flame wars, and the kind of traffic and intensity that advertisers crave.

I don’t reside inside a sportswriter’s head, but I imagine the governing theory is that controversy is good and the heated emotions are harmless. After all, it’s just jockstraps and touchdowns and arguing about whose team is the best.

Well, in this case I suspect that the sports media got a little more than it bargained for.

ESPN appointed itself judge and jury in the Coleman case, preparing a video that purported to demonstrate that the step was intentional. In particular, it employed a graphic I would characterize as “Guilt-o-Vision”, a depiction of Coleman’s alleged field of view that, in ESPN’s opinion, demonstrated that he must have seen Budinger and, therefore, intentionally put his foot on his face.

The video included a sequence that also appeared to me rather inflammatory: a clip of Coleman leaving the court (ten minutes later, after the review had been completed and the brouhaha died down), exchanging a high-five with a teammate and apparently relaxed and uncrippled by remorse.

ESPN energetically promoted the story. A YouTube version of the video collected three million hits and it became a story other outlets had to pick up.

Connor Ennis of the New York Times’ college basketball blog called the foul “vicious”.

As the story moved to the downmarket blogs, the prose got more purple.

College OTR (“Your Online Frathouse”) posted the video and commented, “There are fouls, there are horrendous fouls, and there are absolutely the worst fouls ever caught on film. This one might qualify for the third option on that list.”

The step became a" stomp". Then the stomp became a “curb stomp”, presumably some sort of vicious ghetto punishment meted out on streetcorners by scary black men.

Yahoo led with the story on its homepage, linking to a January 25 post, Please Note Chase Budinger’s Face is Not a Doormat, on one of its sports blogs, The Dagger, written by Matthew J. Darnell.

By the next morning, the post had collected 12,000 (not a typo—12,000) comments.

Virtually all of the Dagger posts condemned Coleman, declaring his act intentional and fuming at the apparent lack of remorse shown in the ESPN clip.

Many posts called for Coleman to be kicked off the team and have his scholarship yanked, and quite a few posts lamented the rise of the “thug” culture in NCAA basketball, a complaint (sometimes coupled with nostalgia for the halcyon days of Bob Cousy and the two-handed set shot) that can easily be construed as racist.

There is no need, however, to exercise guesswork with a large number of posts, which managed to convey explicit and unashamed racism despite the writers’ struggles with literacy and Yahoo’s overworked profanity filter.

What was interesting to me was the number of racist posts that linked Coleman’s behavior with the new Barack Obama administration.

Obviously there is a significant reservoir of racism that once carried with it a sense or expectation of superiority but has now, post-election, morphed into fear and resentment looking for a socially-acceptable outlet—like fury at the alleged misbehavior of a black man on a basketball court.

Be it sports, politics, or policy, the Obama administration will be challenged by people looking to play the victim card and depict the Obama presidency as a dangerous incitement to African-American assertiveness and a challenge to the vulnerable rights and privileges of other Americans.

The selection of comments taken from the Dagger post are, admittedly, cherry-picked. On the other hand, I got all this material just by going through the last 1000 posts. There’s plenty more.

All quotes from The Dagger (needless to say, hopefully, China Matters endorses none of these views and regrets the language):


of course that big gorilla did i on purpose!
did you see how all the other monkeys gave him high 5's and banannas afterwards?
they're all less tyhan human

ts time for the NCAA to start weeding out these little [profane] street urchins that have come to infest the college basketball courts across the country. It used to be a respectful sport, until they started allowing these thugs from Harlem in.
I would propose that the racial balance be the same as the ratio of the school itself. If the school is all black then it is permissible to have an all black team. If a school is 90% white then the team must not exceed 10% non-white on the team.
Just what are they offering for courses in the instituions. Advanced thuggery. Kick the white boy while he's down. Coward punkass [profane] Throw his ass down the toilet, along with his NBA hopes.

Hang the ni**er!!!

[profane] that dirty ass [profane] i would want that dirty ass [profane] to read what i am writing. [profane] that nasty dirty [profane] [profane] that fool! step on me and ill stomp step on him! but first make that [profane]ing [profane] bite the curb. make that [profane]ing [profane] bite the [profane]ing curb!!!

welcome to the niggering of America

He did it because obama is in office

What a Nasty Man, But Hey! He's Black, Obama's Black, Everything is OTay!

Have Houston come to Spokane and pull that crap while playin the Zags. We know how to handle people who behave like Negros up here. Boy, would have never made it to the bus.

it wasnt his fault.. a fan threw a banana on the court and the monkey tried to get to it before the other monkeys did.

worthless apes. welfare leaching maggots.smelly monkeys. no value to this country. wow thats alot of posts, not to mention the famous n word. racist s are alive and well and america. i love it. and if the blacks thing obama is going to do anything for them i got news for them. you are still going to be getto trash 4 yrs from now. ha ha ha.

now that Obama is Prez you'll be seeing alot more of this kind of crap.

Then all his monkey friends congratulate him! Standard Nigs!

look at the black people act like idiots. this is exactly the change obama was talking about. every opportunity the blacks have to step all over the white man, they're on it !

Surprize, Surprize.....Coleman is black and no one cares what he does.....but if it would have been a white man steping on a black guy's face, the whole darn world would be in an up roar.....what is the world coming to???

No, just a shotty arrogant fu#king N!GER....

typical ignorant monkey on the playground. Pull his scholarship, there is no way his momentum carried him, that was deliberate and to say different is negligent. To top it off his nappy headed teammate high fived him. Total crap.

don't blame him....he is a victim...just an innocent, poor, black .....piece of Sh*t

exactly why i hate black people

Come on.............If BLACKS couldn't pull the race card WHERE would our nation be today??!! People would have to actually take PERSONAL responsibility for themselves and their kids AND would have to EARN a spot in college b/c of their brain! Let's not be crazy...............we have worked hard to raise a generation of VICTIMS......and now our new president will continue this great legacy our country is famous for............POOR US

insert obama and any white person and there you have the next 4 years

You vote in a NIg and look what happens. If this was reversed it would be a heat crime and fat black Al Sharpten would be marching around the arena and boycotting the team. They should ban this stupid Gorilla and the rest of the monkeys that congratulated him for doing it. THANKS ALLO MR. PREDISENT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Gatekeeper, the racial aspect of this is that because the player is black he gets a bye, if he was white all of black america would be up in arms. The is a backlash coming from white america if blacks don't start taking responisbility for their actions equal to whites.

Thugs playing ball. Another incident in the past few days highlights the PC'ness of the athletic associations.
"The above video appears to show UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma and Syracuse forward Nicole Michael exchanging words as they go through the post-game handshake line, followed by Michael trying to trip Auriemma when they cross paths again, and Auriemma being restrained by his players from going after Michael. A bizarre incident, to say the least.
But Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese has reviewed the incident and said he's not going to take any action."
I have an idea why these players suddenly seem emboldened, but I get labeled for my thought.

He showed his "TRUE COLORS" didn't he?

A future President of the USA....

typical nig class ghetto jungle behavior.

The college game is imitating the pros......bunch of non-caucasion thugs all trying to be the alpha male.

When you have ignorant, ghetto-thug animals admitted to college merely because they possess athletic ability - this is what you get. Once again, shame on our society for prizing athletics over academics. What a sad commentary.

Just another rude act against a white boy. And they ask why no white guys play anymore? Its cause of crap like this - what happened to the great game of basketball? Stay home thugs, stop coming to our universities and screwing up society.

that thug or shall I say animal must be ban for life

Now that we have a black president, get used to it. Its our time to step on whitey...

thats how monkeys act... no surprise

woody H .... whats up you Nig... get a job.... wait Obama is in office so the whites will really continue to payf or you... dont bite the hand that feeds you

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Brave New World of the RMB Valuation Debate

As China settles in for the New Year holiday, its leaders can chew over Treasury Secretary designate Timothy Geithner’s declaration, made in a written statement to the Senate Finance Committee as it reviewed his nomination, that President Obama—” backed by the conclusions of a broad range of economists”-- believes that China is manipulating its currency.

Before the U.S. recession hit, China might have had more reason to worry that a new Democratic administration might settle in for some serious China bashing to placate its base. Formal designation of China as a currency manipulator would have been the first of a series of big stick measures meant to improve the position of American exporters and labor vis a vis their Chinese competitors.

Geithner’s response is, of course, a long way from the official formal designation by Treasury of China as an intentional currency manipulator for the purpose of gaining an unfair trade advantage under the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 that would trigger the sanctions process.

I’m not expecting aggressive moves by the Obama administration to sanction China into adopting a floating exchange rate, at least at this moment.

The Obama administration is pushing a $850 billion stimulus package through Congress and an amount of U.S. Treasury securities conservatively estimated to be “oodles” will have to be sold to China to finance it.

The need to market U.S. government debt to Beijing is perhaps the most important headache in America's China policy. But the financial crisis has also undermined America's prestige as the world's financial arbiter, provoked fresh displays of Chinese assertiveness, and limited the credible diplomatic options available to the Obama administration.

Concerning the bond market fallout, The New York Times tells us:

Prices of Treasury debt fell modestly after news of Mr. Geithner’s comments, reflecting worry among investors that China might be less willing to buy United States debt if the new administration pushed the country to further revalue its currency. The yield on the 30-year bond, which moves in the opposite direction from its price, climbed to 3.247 percent from 3.159 percent on Wednesday afternoon.

So, ixnay on the trade war, I would say.

The main Chinese media outlet, Xinhua, reported on Geithner’s statement in detail.

The assembled Chinese pundits were eager to fit President Obama with the robes of Herbert Hoover, significantly reframing the RMB issue as part of the Democratic Party’s protectionist agenda instead of accepting it as an orthodox free market nostrum for rationalizing exchange rate regimes and ameliorating trade imbalances.

Mdme. Zuo Xiaolei , Chief Economist of the Milky Way Securities Company, dismissed U.S. remarks on the undervalued RMB as “the same old song” (老调重弹), and warned darkly, “ Obama made no statements opposing protectionism, either on the campaign trail or in his inaugural address…add to that the inclination of the Democratic Party, and American protectionism has already become the greatest concern of the international community.” [emph. added]

American protectionism is the biggest concern of the international community? Bigger than, say, the Western financial system going tits up? Ya think?

In another piece of interesting framing, the article talks of the “China-U.S. economic relationship” as “by far the most important economic entity in the world”, one that accounted for 20% of global economic growth in the last year.

It is, of course, noteworthy that the United States, instead of being feted in its traditional role as “the engine of the world economy”, is now presented as an economically and ideologically shaky co-partner in the joint Sino-American free market economic enterprise.

Welcome to the 21st century.

Unfortunately, America’s forensic disadvantage in the U.S.-China RMB valuation debate go beyond the obvious difficulty that we are flat on our ass and in a poor position to give marching orders to China.

The RMB exchange rate issue has always included a backstory of opening up China’s financial markets to wider participation by foreign companies.

It goes back to 1997, during the Asian financial crisis.

The dominant Western narrative—that the East Asian tigers fully deserved their forex asskicking by George Soros for struggling to sustain improperly valued dollar pegs—endured some difficulty dealing with the awkward fact that since then China kept its undervalued RMB to USD peg (with a modest managed float after 2005), refused to open up its financial markets to significant global capital flows, declined, in short, to let the invisible hand rummage around in its wallet, and has yet to suffer the dire consequences ordained for countries with misvalued currencies. In fact, it's done rather well.

Western economists assumed their position would eventually be vindicated as the large capital inflows associated with an undervalued currency fueled a growth in the domestic money supply that the Chinese government would be finally unable to sterilize through bond sales, inflation would rear its head, and the government would be forced to float the RMB to protect the economy and manage the value of the RMB through monetary and interest rate policies.

It was possible that the Chinese banking system, undercapitalized, saddled with non-performing loans, over-regulated, and driven by government demands instead of market forces, would be ill-equipped to raise and allocate capital and distribute government debt efficiently enough under this sophisticated new regime to protect the economy from an arbitrage-driven meltdown, domestically driven but otherwise similar to the one that happened in Asia in 1997.

In 2003, Treasury Secretary Snow called on China to grasp the nettle, deregulate, and allow foreign capital to romp through its financial markets, so that the value of the RMB would be determined transparently by the free-market interaction between overseas demand and domestic policy:

Market-determined floating currencies are really the key to a well-functioning international financial system. For the world’s major traders, only freely floating currencies bring the accuracy and the efficiency necessary for the proper pricing account settlement in capital flows. That’s really our central point, that floating rates, market-based, flexible exchanges create the signals for a well-functioning flow of resources on a global basis. There’s ultimately no substitute for that.

In 2007, then Treasury Secretary Paulson, in a speech to the Shanghai Stock Exchange that perhaps marked the high-water mark of Bush administration free-market evangelism vis a vis China, painted the orthodox picture as he pushed China to open its financial markets to foreign companies:

"Time is of the essence," for China to develop a strong capital market, Paulson said. "The longer China waits, the more difficult it will be to create robust capital markets.".
"China's underdeveloped financial markets place the nation in a challenging position, trying to balance between a centrally administered and a market-driven economy," Paulson said.

But when the reckoning came, Western, not Chinese financial houses were on the losing side.

The international financial community, instead of playing sugar daddy to mismanaged Chinese banks, is begging sovereign wealth funds from Beijing to Dubai for injections of capital.

Ironically, the U.S. and British banking systems now look a lot like the Chinese system—stuffed with bad loans they can’t digest and propped up by public money because, apparently, the firms are too big to fail and free market forces no longer apply.

More importantly, the fact that the big international banks led the world economy and entire countries like Iceland off a cliff in pursuit of easy profits from an orgy of reckless lending has discredited the West’s financial wizards. It’s fueled the suspicion that Wall Street is not on an eternal search for maximum global economic efficiency—it’s on a neverending quest for the next greater fool.

In September 2008, Bloomberg commented acridly on the current state of affairs (especially bitchy comments in bold):

Eighteen months ago, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson told an audience at the Shanghai Futures Exchange that China risked trillions of dollars in lost economic potential unless it freed up its capital markets.

``An open, competitive, and liberalized financial market can effectively allocate scarce resources in a manner that promotes stability and prosperity far better than governmental intervention,'' Paulson said.

That advice rings hollow in China as Paulson plans a $700 billion rescue for U.S. financial institutions and the Securities and Exchange Commission bans short sales of insurers, banks and securities firms. Regulators in the fastest-growing major economy say they may ditch plans to introduce derivatives, and some company bosses are rethinking U.S. business models.

``The U.S. financial system was regarded as a model, and we tried our best to copy whatever we could,'' said Yu Yongding, a former adviser to China's central bank. ``Suddenly we find our teacher is not that excellent, so the next time when we're designing our financial system we will use our own mind more.''

The recent moves by Paulson, the former chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., contradict what the U.S. told Asian governments over the past decade. Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia were urged to let unviable banks fail during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.


``It's the end of an era,'' said Shanghai-based Andy Xie, a independent analyst who was formerly Morgan Stanley's chief Asia economist. ``In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, socialism was discredited and the whole world turned right. Now financial capital has been discredited and the whole world, including the U.S., is turning left.''

Since China permitted securities backed by assets such as mortgages in 2005, only 14 such instruments have been approved for sale, according to the Web site run by China Government Securities Depository Trust and Clearing Co., the country's biggest debt clearing house.
China's financial institutions were slow to buy the mortgage-related securities that triggered the U.S. meltdown, incurring just $4.3 billion in losses and writedowns, according to data compiled Bloomberg.

Globally, banks have written down more than $520 billion as the credit crisis led to the demise or makeover of Wall Street's five biggest investment banks.

``It's ironic Paulson has become the manager of many large financial institutions,'' said Wang Jun, a finance specialist at the World Bank in Beijing. ``He will have to ask the Chinese leaders about their experience of managing state-owned assets.''

``China's made it clear it won't listen to these snake-oil salesmen who come from Wall Street, even if they're wearing suits issued by the Treasury Department,'' [Arthur Kroeber of Dragonomics Advisory Services Ltd.] said. ``It's strengthened the hands of all the people who are very skeptical about financial liberalization in China.''


So much for the United States holding the moral and intellectual high ground in the RMB debate.

So the Chinese government, unwilling to revalue and exacerbate the pain of its exporters during its recession, finds itself holding quite a few effective rhetorical cards in the debate with the United States.

And the Obama administration finds itself, at least for now, with few persuasive tools to compel an RMB revaluation.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Concerning the sorry situation in Gaza...

...there are a few points I haven't seen made in the press.

1. It was always clear that Israel was going to take advantage of the post-Bush/pre-anybody interregnum to attack one of its enemies. Remember when the possibility of an attack on Iran or Lebanon 2.0 were being chewed over? It turned out badly for the people of Gaza, but Iran & Syria are probably noting that all Israel could do in the end was beat up the little guy on its doorstep.

2. It seems to me painfully obvious that the Gaza invasion is a hail-mary attempt to topple Hamas. The rocket issue a) gives Israel a pretext to attack and b) a justification for declaring victory and withdrawing even though Hamas hasn't fallen--though Israel has killed enough Hamas leaders and destroyed enough Gazan infrastructure to push Gaza firmly in the failed-state category.

3.It might be said that the real target of the Gaza invasion is the Obama administration. Israel has made the statement that any U.S. rethink on the Middle East must accept Israel's desire to destroy Hamas as a precondition. Israel is betting that Obama is preoccupied with domestic economic issues and not interested in using up political capital to challenge the Israeli framing and rebalance the U.S. posture away from Israel and toward the other Middle Eastern countries. Will Israel offer Obama a deal: back us on Hamas and we'll follow through on the Syria peace deal that's already brewing? Let's see.

4. I find risible the whole idea that Hamas will be weakened in the eyes of the Gazans. When an entire community is subjected to extensive and brutal collective punishment, they tend to blame the people dropping the bombs. I expect this has been a recruitment bonanza for Hamas.

5. Assuming that Hamas is still standing after the invasion ends, Israel's endgame involves corraling the U.S., EU, and Egypt to assist it in setting up a chokehold over humanitarian aid to Gaza and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in an attempt to topple Hamas. Firing phosphorous shells into a UN compound and setting fire to hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid would be a convenient way to make things worse and make sure that resupply of food and medicine has to occur on Israeli terms. A multilateral force to shut down the smuggling tunnels is another important measure to restrict the flow of money, food, and medicine to Gaza. Rocket and arms interdiction are useful ways to pressure Hamas but perhaps not the core objective of Israel’s war on the tunnels.

6. It seems to me that this invasion will create more problems than it solves for Israel. It’s a classic illustration of the “doing something is better than doing nothing” fallacy which seems to afflict countries with large armies and weak opponents. Just because the U.S. presidential transition created a vacuum, that doesn’t mean taking advantage of it to invade Gaza was a good idea. If Israel unilaterally deposes Hamas, I don’t think Fatah is going to find a lot of eager volunteers to serve as Israeli assets inside Gaza. In the face of widespread suffering and anger inside Gaza and swelling international outrage over the invasion, I’m filing the statements from Israel and supporters of the invasion that everything is going great in the dubious/grain of salt file. The only people who will be genuinely happy are those who believe that Israel’s best hope for continued American attention and support is an atmosphere of perpetual, self-manufactured crisis—and keeping Gaza and the Arab world aboil with misery and anger.

7.With a few notable exceptions, media reporting and analysis on the Gaza invasion has been as crappy as the job they did on the Iraq invasion. Total inability to challenge the invader's national security talking points, blind acceptance of stated imperatives and objectives that make no logical sense, inability to ask the cui bono question, let alone let alone question the motives of the attacker or make an independent assessment of the overall political dynamic. Handwringing over the carnage and laughing at Joe Wurzelbacher seems about as deep as our pundits and reporters can go.

8. Did everybody skip the "collective punishment = war crime" day at the Nuremberg trials?